How to Measure Volume in Strength and Conditioning Programs

About the Author: Eric Cressey

During my first ever live Facebook Fan Page Q&A last night, I received the following question, and wanted to use today’s post to expand on it:

Q: How do you go about measuring volume in strength and conditioning programs? I feel like it’s glossed over in a lot of textbooks and courses when it comes to programming.

A: This is an incredibly tough question to answer – and trust me, it’s a question I’ve given a lot of thought!

Early in my career, I tried to come up with elaborate equations to calculate volume, but it was tough for a number of reasons (many of which I discuss in my e-book, The Art of the Deload).

First, not all exercises are created equal. A curl can’t be weighted the same as a deadlift variation, for instance.  The more joints an exercise involves and the greater the distance the bar travels, the more stressful it is.  

Many people will make the argument that because one can use more weight on the deadlifts than the curl, the total volume (total reps x load) takes care of itself.  The problem is that it doesn’t take into account the distance the bar travels or the amount of muscle mass involved.  Let’s say a lifter can deadlift 500 pounds, quarter-squat 500 pounds, and barbell supine bridge 500 pounds.  I can guarantee you that the 500 pound deadlift takes of a toll on the body than the other two because there is greater amplitude required and muscle mass recruited.  The “total tonnage” argument is a sound one, but not a perfect one.

Second, all volume isn’t created equal.  Imagine having three crazy stressful training sessions back-to-back-to-back on Mo-Tu-We, then four days off.  Then, take the exact same training loads, but space them out Mo-We-Fr.  I guarantee you that the body’s perception of the stress of the third session will be far greater in the first scenario – which to me is the important reason we consider volume in the first place.  Timing and overlap matter.

Third, let’s say that you go in to the gym fresh and squat on the first day of the training week.  We’ll say that you do four sets of five reps at 315 pounds for a total tonnage of 6,300 pounds.  Then, exactly one week later, you go in and do 15 sets of lower-body training, and then go and squat at the end with the goal of getting that 6,300 pounds of “volume” again.  Since you’re exhausted, you need to do ten sets of two reps instead. Wouldn’t that volume of squatting hit you like a ton of bricks?  The duration of the session and your accumulated transient fatigue changed the game.  

Fourth, not all lifters are created equal.  At a body weight of 185 or so, I hit a 660 deadlift, and after I this lift, my entire body hated me for about a week.  

My wife (an optometrist) freaked out when she saw that I’d bursted some small blood vessels in my eyes and face (it actually looked like I had freckles for about four days).  As I recall, I did about two sets of lunges after this pull before realizing that I should shut it down for the day.  I wasn’t hurt; I was just exhausted.

Conversely, for a 1000-pound deadlifter who outweighs me by 150 pounds, this is speed weight.

And, to really exaggerate my point, imagine a brand new female lifter who is learning to deadlift with the training plates (10 pounds/side = 65 pound deadlift).  If she does a whopping 11 reps (65lbs x 11 = 715 lbs), she’ll have accumulated more volume than I did on this day.

In short, “appropriate” volume is 100% specific to the lifter’s experience, age, gender, training goals, fatigue status, injury history, competing demands, and a host of other factors that I didn’t even cover!

That said, when it really comes down to it, it’s just something you learn in time by observing, writing, and trying out hundreds/thousands of programs. It’s like a sixth sense for me by now.

I will, however, make one observation that never seeks to amaze me:

I’m always surprised at how much volume it takes to attain a level of fitness, but how little volume it takes to maintain that level of fitness.

To that end, most strength and conditioning coaches devote their entire career to finding a good mix of a number of factors to offer clients and athletes a great training effect, but we’ll never know what an “ideal” mix of these factors is simply because factors like volume can be so cumbersome to interpret.  For that reason, writing strength and conditioning programs will always be as much art as it is science.

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